The Hunger that Arises from Watching The Games
I am somewhat shy to report that I could not resist the last installment of The Hunger Games, a series of films that showed real promise in the second chapter. That film’s premise, like the first, included a really good idea at its core. It is an idea whose literary original has been mined from sources as varied as Ben Hur, Gladiator, and the Japanese film Battle Royale, but that doesn’t make it less worthy.
Like the other adolescent fantasy films that flood the cinaplex marketplace (all of the films, for example, of Michael Bay), the world in which the Hunger Games are played is not the real world, so the films can have a high-stakes look of things taking place in reality while trampling on anything resembling real politics, sociology, gender issues, race issues, or (let us not forget) physics. People who don’t “do” history can look at the trumped-up cinematic fascism of The Hunger Games films and feel like they’re paying their dues to their inconveniently nerdy Social Studies 20 teacher (herself uninterested in the real study of history).
I nevertheless really enjoyed the trip that the second film (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) took me on. I grinned, delighted, at the visual conception of the decadence of The Capitol, with its gaudy Fox-News-On-Steroids-Meets-American-Idol sensibility. Stanley Tucci’s big bright teeth were by themselves a reason to love this movie. And Jennifer Lawrence sells Katniss Everdeen’s moral burn as well as anyone could possibly do. All of the movies have a gratifyingly proactive girl-power message about a girl who is more powerful than Sly Stallone, but without the mean male psychotic killer thing. When Katniss draws her bow, we feel her pain. Sure, things go kerpow and splat, but she didn’t really mean it. But I digress.
I liked the second film for its quite amazing mis-en-scene; the scene where Katniss is interviewed in her bleak District 12 landscape, for example, and shows up on the glittering screens of The Capitol looking like she’s on the set of America’s Got Talent. It is a striking and important statement about the propaganda power of media; it’s not a new thought, but I’ll bet it was new to many of the young people in the audience.
The narrative confinement of the forced-duel-to-the-death plotline is important in the first two films; it gives them shape, and keeps us from asking the difficult questions, like where do contestants in the Games, or the people of Panem, for that matter, go to the bathroom? Or, what economic model does Panem run on? If the country is a Dictatorship, how does Donald Sutherland make his money? Rome was, after all, not built in a day, it was built on military conquest and permanent tribute (that’s why they needed the legions in Gaul). Panem seems to run on pure unfairness.
But why bring up Political Economy when you’re chewing popcorn, right? Oh, I know why! Because the films seem to have a kind of realpolitik hardness to them. Which brings me to the third and (sadly) fourth films, in which a revolution is staged. Well, it’s not so much a revolution as a media event, and if does strike you that the revolutionaries are a surprisingly well-coiffed group of young white people with cool tattoos, well, be satisfied that there are a couple of token black people in the film, even if their roles are comfortingly functional and definitely one-dimensional. BUT I DEGRESS! The problem with the last film is that, without the confined space of The Games, which forced the protagonist into the moral problem of staying alive while trying not to become a murderer, the character of Katniss finally, in the last episode, becomes a mere G.I. Jill. Her struggle to be a decent person continues, but When Shit Gets Bad out there in the war zone, her hanging on the fence about the war becomes absurd. That’s why, I think, the big action scene in the film is between humans and these weird, toothy underground gollums that (literally) come out of nowhere to provide an excuse to exercise the sub-bass woofers in the theatre’s sound system. It’s one of the few moments in the film where Katniss actually gets to DO anything with her famous bow-and-arrow, but it’s as arbitrary to the story as if the young gang of tattooed heroes were attacked by a herd of wildebeests.
There is a bunch of portentious stuff at the end of the film in which the new regime for which our heroine has fought turns out to be as nasty as the last (and all hail to the costume mistress, who subtly suggested a kind of post-Trotskyist look in a nice little scene towards the end). But the screenplay neatly tiptoes through little problems like post-revolutionary politics in order to reunite Katniss with her True Love, and there are babies, flowers, and Jennifer Lawrence looking maternal at the end. Joan of Arc unburnt, order restored, and the full color palate allowed to bathe the filmstock.
A very casual reading of history would tell all these busy screenwriters, and all of us distracted popcorn-munchers that major wars ALWAYS end in horror, that the winners ALWAYS lie about the horrors they perpetrated in order to win, and that the victims are ALWAYS the women and children. I suppose it’s too much to ask that we expose our children to the real facts of history. We live in a world of paper heroes in digital landscapes. All hail the new rulers of Panem.